Tommie Sunshine Talks Activism, Music, and The Power of Everyone’s Voice [TMN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]

It takes a lot to put yourself out there every day – to fight the verbal barbs of the internet community day in and day out, to brazenly express your opinion, even if you might experience unwanted backlash. No one knows this truth better than dance music journeyman Tommie Sunshine. Aside from putting music out regularly  over the course of a few decades, he’s also become quite engaged in the latest uprising of social activism that we’ve seen sweep our nation, and beyond.

One night, we were reading a string of  his passionately charged tweets, and decided to ask him to elaborate in a one-on-one interview. The end result was an in-depth look at his upbringing, dance music, and the state of the world we live in today.

TMN: Hey Tommie, thank you so much for taking some time to sit down with us tonight. Throughout the past year, we’ve noticed how big of a role activism has played in your career, and we’d love to get some insight on that. First off, tell us how this all started for you:

TS: The main reason why this of all things connects with me personally is – when I was 12 years old, I was lucky enough to have a cousin who sat me down on a family vacation. He ran with all the big figures of the 60’s. He went to school with Abbie Hoffman at Michigan State, and he was a huge part of the revolution of that time. At 12 years old, I was lucky enough to get this crash course from him of books, films, and albums.

He was like, “track down all these things, and when you read the books, if you don’t understand them, read them again in two years. And keep reading them until you get it. Once you get it – keep reading them. As you get older, there will be things that you won’t believe you missed that.

“Listen to these albums. Digest the artwork. Like, listen to the lyrics. Feel the music and understand it.” He was like “same thing with the films. Really watch these until you get what’s going on here.”

There was too many to mention, but by the time I was 14, my musical landscape was Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead and Jimi, and The Doors. Which, in the 80’s, it wasn’t that far out of the 60’s. Classic rock radio was still playing it, so I wasn’t so much of an outcast for listening to the music.

Where I hit the road bumps was…here I am living in super upper middle class suburbia, southwest of Chicago, reading William Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Tom Wolfe. I was completely stewed in all this counter-culture. What I was reading was so far ahead of what my life experience was at that time, but one of the biggest things that impressed upon me, was the thing that they were all fighting for the most. Besides Vietnam, which was the obvious thing, what all of those kids were trying to do was fighting for racial equality. At that point, in the 60’s, most white people in America didn’t even really think of black people as so much as human.

This was a real tough time. When we discussed all this, he did not instill a romanticized view of the 60’s revolution, he was very candid about the fact that they fucking blew it. He explained to me how they blew it. How it went into the 70’s, and all these things they fought for, they forgot about.

All the people who were young and fought for that went and got high paying jobs, became the same gluttonous pigs that their parents were, and forgot about everything they were trying to change.

TMN: Ok, that explains the foundation of it. How did that translate into your era though?

TS: It struck a chord with me when I found what was my generation’s “hippie revolution,” which to me was house music. When I first heard house music in Chicago, I said, “this is it. This is our generation’s revolution. This is how we’re going to change the world.” I was talking about that back then, and of course, everyone thought I was nuts.

I remember people were getting upset because people were getting $500 DJ fees, and people were like, “I don’t know if I want to come to these anymore.” To them, that was already too commercial! They felt like it was already getting to a point to being sold out.

To me, that was where it all clicked. Part of it clicking like that was – house music comes from the struggle of gay, black, and latino culture. That is where house music comes from. That is the center of gravity of house music.


TMN: For a lot of us older industry folks, that’s how we got introduced to it all. Our first experience was at a straight night at a gay club.

TS: If you made me sit down and write on a piece of paper who the originators of house music, and then bleed that over into who the originators of techno music were in Detroit, 95% of these guys were black. There was a couple of white guys in the mix back then, but the majority of everyone were black. Even the guys that were “white,” it was Julian Jumpin’ Perez…who’s not white! Ralphie Rosario…who’s also latino. This is all coming from gay, black and latino culture.

To me, just to end cap this, if you came into this scene at the “EDM moment,” I don’t think that you have any responsibility to the culture. But, I whole-heartedly believe that anybody that came into house music, and loves house music, that can turn a blind eye to what’s going on right now, are hypocrites. I’m very firm in my stance on that.

TMN: Just to clarify that – you mean people who are turning a blind eye to the racism that’s happening right now?

TS: I have no idea how you can say you love music that comes from black, gay culture, and be homophobic, or racist. It makes no sense.

I can say that house music not only changed my life, but house music saved my life. In as much as it affected my life in such a heavy way. I feel a responsibility and an obligation to fight this fight.

I think it’s crystal clear.

TMN: You covered a lot in that intro. Let’s circle back over a couple of those points. So, you’re not old enough to have been of the Vietnam protest era. You did mention your cousin though. In that conversation, you mentioned some records. Can you elaborate on those?

TS: I can go to a point where this could get exhaustive, but here are some of the most important ones:

John Coltrane “A Love Supreme”

Jefferson Airplane “Wooden Ships” / “We Can Be Together” / “Volunteers”

Sam Cooke “A Change Is Gonna Come”

Sky & The Family Stone “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey”

Bob Dylan “Blowin’ In The Wind” / “Masters Of War” / “The Times They Are A-Changing”

The Mamas & The Papas “Go Where You Wanna Go”

Gil Scott Heron “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

The Temptations “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)”

Grateful Dead “That’s It For The Other One”

Edwin Starr “War”

Jimi Hendrix Experience “Are You Experienced?” / “Machine Gun”

Donovan “Atlantis” / “Sunshine Superman”

Arlo Guthrie “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”

The Plastic Ono Band “Give Peace a Chance”

The Doors “The End”

TMN: Definitely some timeless pieces in there! Thanks for sharing. Who are some of the more current artists you feel fit into this same landscape?

TS: D’Angello, J. Cole, Proxy, Knife Party, Botnek, Wiwek and Milo & Otis accurately embody the chaos going on in the world right now & imprints like Monstercat have reimagined running a label the way the protesters have re-envisioned intellectual non-violent protest.

TMN: When the Christmas eve incident happened, it was on twitter before there were any announcements made. One thing we wanted to ask – do you feel that the info-by-the-second world that condemns or condones actions from either party without knowing the full scope of what actually happened – can’t it be potentially dangerous?

TS: You know, I have a very particular view on this. I think that mainstream media is infinitely less trustworthy than anybody on twitter. I don’t trust anything I see on TV. Everyone has an agenda. Listen, I’m guilty as anybody. I have a twitter. I am a curator of facts and figures. The things that I’m going to put in front of people support the agenda and the cause I’m fighting for. It’s really simple. People don’t realize that when they turn on the TV, or go to, they’re getting news that’s filtered through a set of ideals and an agenda. People forget that that’s going on.

To be honest, there’s no difference between MSNBC, CNN and Fox. Everyone else is squeezing that little bit of truth through these agendas. In social media though, people put up things, which are reactionary, and it’s human nature.

Of course there’s going to be different takes and different perspectives, I still think it’s a better way to communicate. There’s no filter. I’m okay with that. I would rather get the raw story and then gather the rest of the perspectives and create my own take on it.

It’s the most unique part of what makes what’s going on right now different than any other stitch in time. For god sakes, we just witnessed a bombing at the NAACP in Colorado Springs, and it took an entire day for any major news channel to touch it. They didn’t even talk about it.

Being this tuned into all of this stuff is not the easiest thing in the world. It’s not fun. I would love to be able to wake up and not think about this. But, my life has taken on a different path at this point. This is a compulsion to me. I have to do this.

TMN: Talk to us about MLK day, and everything that’s surrounding it right now.

TS: The take on that is that the black community is looking to reclaim MLK. Instead of this day being the way for government to like say, “shut the fuck up, here’s a day. Now, be quiet.” It came so painfully late. It was so tardy, it wasn’t even funny.

So, this is a way to take this day back and turn it into a powerful day.

TMN: You’ve been in all the marches recently in NYC. What are the responses like from people down there? There are people of all races down there, but what kind of interactions do you have while you’re supporting them? Is it all positive?

TS: Yes. One of the things that’s kind of an unwritten rule is that it is never ok for anyone white to take the megaphone. They are politely asked to stop. It’s not our place to be leading these marches.

The problem is going on right now is the injustice of police against the black community. It’s specific. It’s for a reason. It’s not saying that black lives matter more than white people’s lives matter. It’s foolish for anyone in 2015 to say, “all lives matter, we’re all the same.” It’s very naive. Of course, that’s true, but that’s not how the world works. Anyone that thinks that it does, isn’t paying very much attention.

That community is on the receiving end of an awful lot of chaos and hate and misdirected anger. These things were never fixed coming out of the 50’s and 60’s. Laws were passed, but it didn’t fix the problem. Now, we’re living in those problems.


TMN: One thing that we’re curious about is the feeling of this overwhelming divide that there is right now. Why do you feel like 2014 erupted, aside from the obvious?

TS: Well, I think that it’s a shift in consciousness. How in the hell can you argue that in the past two years, there hasn’t been a mass awakening in consciousness? Look at the Arab Spring. Look at what’s going on in Russia and the Ukraine. Look what’s going on in Mexico. People are looking at the governments that they have and are saying, “No. We’ve had enough. This ends today. We’re not putting up with this shit anymore.”

There has never been a time where people have had the guts to stand tall and stand against these things that have been the status quo for years. It goes beyond nationality. It goes beyond the borders of countries.

Look what is going on with women and rape. People are standing up and saying, “no. We’re not going to tolerate this anymore. We don’t give a fuck.”

There has never been a point in my life, and I’m 43, where I’ve seen an outpouring of courage in people. That’s the part of it that excites me. People are no longer afraid to stand up and speak their truth.

TMN: Obviously, we’re not a political blog, so we have to circle back to some music related stuff. Musicians have played a heavy role in protest through the ages. In the 60’s, there was no direct connection to the artist. They could say whatever they wanted, and there was no way for the fans to voice what they thought. It’s significantly different now. You have a few roles now. You’re a musician. You own a label. Is it hard walking that line? Do you fear losing people who support your music?

TS: Let’s just say I was afraid, which I’m not. I just posted this the other day. I don’t know what inspired me to do it, but I did it.

“If you are racist, against anyone, or anything, please stop following me, stop listening to my music, and stop coming to my shows. Thank you.”

I stand by that. I’m playing in Lubbock, TX. Do I expect some shit for that? Probably. I have to say something. There’s nothing more personal than art. In my life, as an artist, my art is very personal. I don’t understand artists who don’t like to speak about their opinions.

Part of what drives my artistry is my activism, so how could I possibly not talk about it? It’s as natural to me as anything. This is my center of gravity. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to read it.

My hope is that a couple of people do read some of that though, and that through the course of the day, there is a little bit of elevation throughout the world. If I can contribute that little bit throughout the day, I feel like I’ve accomplished something great.

Most people don’t have an opinion on anything! They’re more worried about protecting their fucking brand. That’s not why I got into this. I’m not a marketing guy. I’m an artist and I love what I do. My entire life revolves around this.

Some people can call me a workaholic. I just really love all of this. It really does inform my entire life. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, especially for someone who is coming up on 10 years of sobriety. I have found a way to take the obsessions of my life and turn them into positive things. That is something that’s very difficult to do.

TMN: Congratulations on the upcoming anniversary. That’s amazing.

TS: Thanks!

TMN: You’re on the streets. This is ingrained in your every day life. What are some recommendations you could give to an artist to help them use their reach to make a difference?

TS: This is the part that’s most important to communicate. I don’t have any advice for anyone. I don’t think there’s anything that people should do that they’re not doing. I mean, it would be really great if cops stopped killing black kids – that would be a step in the right direction. I can’t stand here and say though that I think Martin Garrix should use his bandwidth to draw attention to this cause.

TMN: No, but for someone who is passionate about it…

TS: I get what you’re asking. This is something that is so personal…you have to be moved by it to be a part of it. I think that anyone who is moved by it should spend the time, and read about it. There is plenty of intelligent discourse about it. We have reached the mountaintop of unbelievable discussion about it.

There is an immense amount of information on this shift in culture. If you are passionate about it, read about it and do as much as you can. If you live in a city that just doesn’t mobilize, then take the articles that you think are the best and pass them on.

If one person reads that, we’re one step closer to it being a problem any more. As a very wise friend of mine once said, “Tommie, do you understand that everyone, no matter who it is, is doing the best that they can.”

I said, “what do you mean?”

He said, “think about it. We all go through crazy parts of our lives. We’re brought up around crazy atmospheres. We soak up the prejudices of opinions of our parents and our grandparents. As adults, we have to then shed that skin and form opinions of our own, which hopefully are different, and aren’t just blanks that are filled in with things from where we came from. Everyone is doing the best that they can.

Not everyone is put on on this earth to have their boots on the ground, and to protest. That’s not why everyone is here. Everyone has a role in all of this. The best you can do is participate in as much as you can.

I feel this way about anything. If you are moved by anything in your life, then you should do everything you can to turn everyone on to whatever that is. You should be an evangelist for that.

TMN: So talk to us about some of the issues you’ve dealt with since you’ve become increasingly vocal.

TS: I’m not here to judge anyone on what they don’t do. I certainly get judged all day on what I do do. I would say, since this started (using the bandwidth that I have to discuss it), I would say that I have not successfully gone through an hour of the day without having to block someone on social media.

TMN: Wow.

TS: I can say that confidently. Does that worry me? No! I don’t want people like that in the discussion. I don’t want people like that people blowing up my twitter. I don’t want to read their crazy shit. The minute people say something irrational to me, or says something nasty, not even something that I don’t agree with…I mean, I’ll verbally spar with anyone. It’s sport to me. I’ll go back and forth with somebody thirty times if they’re discussing something intelligently. But, if someone is calling me a dumbass or a faggot because I’m standing up for people’s rights…what am I going to do? Engage them?!?

TMN: You’re a brave man!

TS: You know what it is? I’ve already had such a long journey through my career. I’ve already done so many things. I’ve already had so many highs and lows, and ups and downs. Part of being fearless about this is having these 15 finished records coming out this year. I know the music I have coming out soon is the best fucking music I’ve ever made. I have no fear of how it’s received, because I know that I’m hitting this stride that I’ve been striving for my entire career.

If I didn’t have all of this music, I would be terrified! But, you know what? I have all this badass music to back it up. If people don’t like what I have to say, they’re still going to have to deal with my fucking music, because there’s going to be DJs playing it all over the world.

TMN: Tell me about being honest about your opinions & sticking to them amidst a massive backlash?

TS: I feel this is the easiest question to answer. Nothing is more important to me than the right of every single person to voice their personal opinions whether or not I or the majority of people agree with them. I feel lots of people share their real-time feelings on Social Media only to either delete them or backpedal and redefine them later. I’ve always admired people who were unafraid to speak their mind & stood their ground while so many people disapproved.

During ‘Kygogate’ a few weeks ago, countless blogs ran headlines claiming I “attacked” him & generally reported I was out of line. When I inquired to them why words like “attacked” were used, I was told that it was mainly because throughout the conversation about it I kept writing ‘@’ him. I can’t imagine anything more cowardly than speaking behind someone’s back. In 2015, subTweeting is the modern version of talking shit. If I bring up anyone on Twitter for any reason, I write at them. That is honest. If you have something to say about someone, the least you can do is give them the opportunity to participate in the discussion and/or defend themselves. I’ve come out the other side of discussions like this with friendship as the result of an intelligent interaction. Anyone who is a fan of mine and follows me on social media knows full well that I’m down to discuss anything with anyone. If you are an artist and you don’t personally interact with your fans, you are missing out on the best part of the experience. We all have so much to learn from each other. Why anyone would choose to stay quiet about anything? That’s completely out of my realm of understanding.

TMN: Do you feel like you are your truest self right now and that’s fueling your creative passion?

TS: Honestly? It kind of scares me sometimes. I feel so in the moment. It’s like having that kind of clarity is kind of spooky. I’m not worried about the past. I’m not worried about the future. I’m literally living as present as a human can live.

TMN: What else is going on in your life?

TS: I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m so in love with my wife, after being together for nine years. Come on, how many couples do you see that have been together for that long that are still really happy to hang out with each other all day long?

We’re probably more in love now, and have a stronger relationship than we ever have. And, she’s involved in the social consciousness stuff as much as I am. It’s not a follow the leader thing. It means something different to her, which of course, I admire.

If there’s one piece of advice I can give the world, it’s this – don’t waste your time with someone who does not intellectually stimulate you. There’s no way that you can have a long stretch of life if you can’t sit down and talk to them. There’s no amount of beauty that can offset that.

Our activism has strengthened our love and our bond. When you have two people who love each other, having their eyes set on a common goal, that’s incredible. That’s hard to find! I consider myself blessed.

TMN: That’s amazing. Let’s get back to activism though. Why do you feel like it’s a stronger movement than ever before?


TS: Why everything that is going on right now is working, in the way that it is, is that everyone understands that you have to pick your battles. Instead of there being something every single day, they’re organized. They rally everyone together.

It’s on this date. It has an angle. Everyone concentrates their power, and it’s a huge showing. It makes so much more of a difference. It really all comes down to picking your battles.

TMN: Who are some of the people who are behind these movements that people should be watching?

TS: There are two guys who I feel are really important to follow. I believe that they are the leaders of this. One guy’s name is Deray (on twitter), and the other guy is Shuan King. Those two guys are the guys. Shuan King writes for the Daily Cause, and Deray and this woman Netta do a protester newsletter that they started back in August. They, together, have risen to be the kind of mouthpieces of this.

Deray says very eloquently, “can you imagine what is going to happen to this movement once it gets warm?”

If you can get 60,000 people into the streets of NYC in December, can you imagine how many people will be in the streets come June? This is well past the snowball effect. It gets bigger every time there’s a juncture.

I think there is a a beauty in all of this because there’s going to have to be huge systematic changes.

TMN: Where does this lead to? Of course, it’s social awareness and making people aware that this exists and that there are changes that need to happen. But, what specifically needs to happen? Legislation change? Will this foster new politicians that rally behind it? What do you foresee happening?

TS: Well, I have a feeling that in 2016, this country will see a level of voter turnout that it’s never seen. I know when Obama first ran, that was a bit of a sensation, and we saw huge turnout. But, this is not a cult personality. It’s quite the opposite. This is a movement of ideals. I think that people are so much more aware of knowing that certain elected people will make a difference.

One of the guys that I like the best, who is a great example of the modern version of politics, is Corey Booker is from New Jersey. He’s incredible. He is so on point. He’ll tweet NAS and Tupac lyrics. No one else is doing that! That’s a significant change in the way that people are presenting themselves politically.

I think the whole movement would be very happy to see the systematic killing of minorities stop. It would be nice to see these police unions not be able to throw a cloak over these guys. It’s a long list, but there are some fundamental things that I feel are going to have to change. There’s enough inertia in this movement that these things are not going to be allowed to continue. It has to stop. It’s going to stop.

TMN: Let’s bring it back full circle to you getting introduced to those books, records, and artists that changed your life. Where do those fit in now?

TS: I’ve waited for this my entire life. I never thought that this revolution that I was told about as folklore would be something I actually saw in my life. I never thought I would see true activism. I never thought I would be a part of it.

I can tell you one thing – this goes beyond life-affirming. The night after the Darren Wilson verdict, and I was in Times Square, there were so many marches going on in NY, that they couldn’t shut any of them down. They couldn’t figure out where they all were! At the same time, people shut down the West Side Highway, The FDR, they were going up 5th Avenue, they were at Chelsea, they were on the Brooklyn Bridge, they were on the Manhattan Bridge, they were on the Williamsburg Bridge, they were on the Triboro Bridge.
The beauty of it was nobody was organizing it. Everyone heard about it on twitter or saw people marching and decided to join. There was no grand design. The word that works the best is inertia. You just see that it’s going on.

In that moment, I felt something that changed me fundamentally. To my left was a line of policemen that was 100 long and two deep. I remember screaming as loud as I could, “New York is Ferguson, and Ferguson is New York.” If I could explain in words, and I’m usually pretty good at that, but I cannot describe the look of utter fear in those cops eyes.

Cops know how to deal with violence. What they don’t know how to do is deal with you if you’re peaceful. And they definitely don’t know what to do if you’re justifiably angry. You could see the panic in their eyes because they didn’t know what to do.

TMN: We’ve had such a great time talking to you tonight. Let’s close it out with your final thoughts

TS: I feel like, in the past few decades, we really got sold on the fact that our voice doesn’t matter. That virus made it’s way through all of culture. It’s such a lie. Everyone’s voice matters.

Every time you get a group together, and add that person’s voice, that collective voice gets louder. When that gets louder? People are forced to listen.

It’s important for everyone to understand that everyone’s voice and opinion matters. It’s so important that that’s understood. I feel like that’s the biggest obstacle.

You never know, by your involvement, who else might become involve. That person you involve might go on to be one of the most important people in the equation. Had you never taken that first step, they would have never taken that first step, and then we could have missed the one of the biggest key figures in the whole thing.

I think it’s very important that people understand that no matter who you are, your voice has an equal shot at communicating through the power of social media.